A suffering economy killing mom-and-pop businesses? From the perspective of Shannon and Jenni Neffendorf, founders of Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters, that generalization doesn’t amount to a hill of (ahem) coffee beans. Their neighborhood company is not only surviving but thriving — so much so that Shannon recently quit his day job to give coffee his full attention.
Are you two avid coffee drinkers?
Shannon: I used to drink coffee with my grandpa growing up. That’s why I started drinking it, to hang out with him and have something in common with him. He did then, and does to this day, drink disgusting Maxwell House, unless I give him coffee. So I’ve drunk it since high school, and over time developed a more particular taste for coffee.
When did that begin?
Shannon: I took a trip to Italy — Milan — and that changed my outlook a little bit because the coffee culture over there is so much different. Everywhere you went, you got good coffee. You don’t have to seek out good coffee like you do here. It was just realizing that good coffee is not an anomaly. Then I was always looking for a better cup of coffee, and started a few years ago roasting coffee for myself. We started just roasting it up for other people, for friends and family, and it took off.
Jenni: I think people don’t know that you can get that good of coffee. They think that Starbucks, that’s what good coffee is. That’s the only thing people know.
S: The business, in a lot of ways, pulled us much more than we pushed it.
So it has naturally grown?
S: Yeah, I guess you could say it’s grown organically. Some of our customers are good friends who love to pitch it to other people, and they’ve been our biggest salesmen — commission-free salesmen. Up until six weeks ago I had a full-time job as an accountant for Blockbuster, so there wasn’t really time to develop a marketing strategy. Our strategy has just been to develop a good product and serve it in the community we live in — at the [Kessler School] pumpkin patch, [Oak Cliff] Transit Authority events, Winnetka Heights home tour — and we’ll even serve coffee at neighborhood meetings around the area.
So business is that good, huh?
S: There’s definitely going to be a transition period financially, but doing it part-time, there was nothing more we could have done. It was maxed out. On Sunday, we would come home from church at about 1 o’clock, and roast and package until midnight, then deliver Monday morning.
How did you come up with the milkman method of leaving the coffee in a burlap sack on the front porch?
S: It was really a product of, we don’t have a retail space, so how are we going to get our product delivered? It was out of necessity more than anything.
J: It turns out people love that. That’s what I hear customers say most often — ‘You have to get their coffee. They just leave it on your door.’
DO you run into neighbors when you make deliveries?
S: I get up at 4:45 and I’m on the road by 5, so typically no, but yes, I have had people who I think may wake up and wait for me. One morning I was delivering with a friend, and a guy who lives in Stevens Park — he’s one of the first ones on my delivery route, so it’s 5:15 — he comes out in his robe and shakes my hand and takes my coffee from me, and my friend said, ‘Man, that was like a commercial.’
How much coffee do you roast each month?
S: We’re probably around 90 to 100 customers, most of them on subscription, and on average they want two pounds per month. Also, we just started roasting for the Crooked Tree Coffee House in Uptown.
J: So that doubled our numbers.
S: I would say we’re doing 300 pounds a month, and we’re talking to a couple of restaurants in the neighborhood.
J: Our strategy is to hit up a lot of the local restaurants, businesses here in Oak Cliff, but if something fell into our lap outside Oak Cliff, we wouldn’t turn it away, and that’s how Crooked Tree happened.
Do you still do all the roasting at home?
S: No, not anymore. We’ve moved out, and we have a roasting location. She got tired of having 700 pounds of coffee in our living room.
J: Who wouldn’t want 700 pounds of coffee in their living room?
S: It’s like furniture.
J: That’s what he tried to sell me on — it’s a beanbag.
S: Maybe that’s how beanbags were invented.
So what’s your roasting secret?
S: There’s no secret. It’s just about buying high-quality beans, and just trial and error — knowing what roast works for what bean, and not burning them like other places do. We don’t buy anything based on price. We buy everything based on taste. We shoot for fair trade. Our Guatemalan bean, we buy it all from a friend, and he does direct trade with a farm in Guatemala. He works with the farm and helps in setting up schools and things like that.
Do you have plans to open a neighborhood coffee shop?
S: We started this almost as a venue to get to that, but it’s really taken on a life of its own, and in my mind, it’s been successful and done so well that I think now our main focus is roasting and providing to restaurants and residents in the area. But we haven’t written off that thought.
J: We really want this to be a community thing. We really want to give back to this area, so if anything [a coffee shop] would be a place where people could come and hang out, and learn how to have a good cup of coffee.
S: If a retail coffee shop opened in the area and served our coffee, I would be content with that. But for some reason, I always feel obligated when people in Oak Cliff say they wish we had a good coffee shop.
Is the economic downturn impacting you?
S: We’ve lost one subscriber because she and her husband were laid off, but besides that, we’ve continued to grow. Every month is bigger than the last. You see these big corporations shutting down, and that’s just an opportunity to step in and let small businesses grow and thrive. A big part of that is I know my customers. I have an accountability with them, and them with me. I don’t think we’re bulletproof, but we’re well insulated by our neighborhood.
Do you think neighbors support you simply because you’re a neighborhood business?
S: I do think there are people — and I appreciate these people — who buy us because we have Oak Cliff in our name. My favorite subscriber is a person who buys a pound of coffee and then comes back and subscribes because I know they’ve tasted my product. We have some people who subscribe blindly, and I think they support us because we’re in Oak Cliff, and I love that, too.
J: They drink coffee and we’re local, so why not?
To learn more, visit oakcliffcoffee.com.